Saturday, June 23, 2012

My 10 Favorite Churches (So Far)

Very soon I'm headed for a couple of days with a friend in Italy - land of beautiful churches. In anticipation of getting to see a few that threaten to knock others off my favorites list, I started thinking about which churches would currently be on that list. It's hardly comprehensive, and I hope to shake it up with plenty more churches on future travels!  Here are my favorites so far.

I'll start with a few runners-up which were considered for the list but didn't make it. In no order, with the best features listed:
Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany -Richter window, tons of Gothic detail
Limburg Cathedral, Limburg, Germany - View from the Autobahn, hilltop setting, outside painting
St. Vitus, Prague, Czech Republic - Mucha window
Heiligen-Geist-Kirche, Wismar, Germany -Boat details, cozy, unusual paintings
Luxembourg Notre Dame, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg - Pilgrimage-inspiring dress-up Mary
St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City - Just impressive overall feeling
Notre Dame, Paris, France - Gorgeous paintings in side chapels and on columns
Manchester Cathedral, Manchester, UK - Not sure why it's stayed with me so much
Mainzer Dom, Speyerer Dom, Wormser Dom  - My husband's nominees - and their inclusion is a matter of regional pride. ;)

Now for the top 10!

10. Westminster Abbey, London, UK 
There will be a lot of Gothic on this list, because I love Gothic architecture, and I think Westminster is such a beautiful example of it.  This ceiling in particular is breathtaking. As a special bonus the place is dripping with history.  All things being equal it should perhaps be higher on the list, but there are some unfortunate downsides - the place is so crowded with tourists that you can't linger too long anywhere without being pushed along.  The admission fee is astronomical, and there's a reason I didn't post my own photo of the ceiling: I don't have one, because photography is prohibited inside the church, and there's a large staff of vicars hanging around to make sure you don't take any.  They also lead tours - the tours are great and I highly recommend them, but the vicar who led ours seemed deeply unhappy with his job.  It must be very difficult to want to keep a space sacred and have it be overrun with gawkers every day, but you really can't blame anyone for wanting to see it.  It's amazing - just amazing enough to make the list despite the lack of atmosphere the crowding causes. See more pictures here.

9. Rockefeller Chapel, Chicago, USA
This makes the list for being the first church I ever walked into and had the immediate feeling that I was in a special place, truly separate from the maddening world.  Not every great church imparts this feeling, although they ought to.  Perhaps it's just lucky that it was really the first large and the first (neo-)Gothic church I ever experienced.  Compared to others on the list it's a bit lacking in detail but has neat little colorful ceiling designs, interesting carvings, the rose window in the picture (from the 70s, and you can kind of tell), and a little extra meaning to me because it's at my alma mater.

8. St. Neot Church, St. Neot, Cornwall, UK
From the hanging lanterns to the scrolly gravestones, the personalized embroidered kneeling cushions to the strange name, the print-skirt Mary statue to what look like Art Nouveau bathroom tiles behind the altar...this church is charming as all get out.  Bonus: there's a holy well behind the church.  The unexpectedness of finding a favorite church in Cornwall - not a place you visit for church hopping - makes it all the better.  See more pictures here.

7. Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany
The patchwork of architectures, one of them rare Carolingian architecture, is fascinating.  Beautiful ceilings, a chair made from sidewalk stones from Jerusalem, a chandelier given by Barbarossa, a dress-up Mary, a sweet little tiny platz before the entrance, and a cool/creepy collection of relics make it very worth a visit.  It doesn't rank higher only becuase the marbly details inside are kind of ugly.  Get the tour!  See more pictures here.

6. Sebalduskirche, Frauenkirche, & Lorenzkirche, Nürnberg, Germany
We're lucky enough to have gotten to visit Nürnberg, but not lucky enough to have much time there!  We had only a couple of hours, leaving me with just an impression - an impression of incredible churches with detailed altars, colorful stained glass (often only on the bottom half or so, with clear glass above - a neat effect) and painted Gothic features. (My first experience with painted Gothic!)  Given that my mind has compressed the three churches I saw that day into one big mish-mash church, it doesn't seem fair to pick just one of them, and leaving the Nürnberg church-visiting experience off the list would be wrong, so I had to go with all three.  See more pictures here.

5. San Giovanni Laterano & San Clemente, Rome, Italy
Rome is another place where we visited an incredible number of churches, ending up in a big churchy mish-mash in my mind later. I simply couldn't choose between these two.  Both feature the beautiful mosaics typical in Italian churches.  Laterano also has a detached round baptristy and a serene little courtyard which is worth the extra couple of Euro to see; Clemente has the ruins of an old basilica and an old mithraeum right underneath.  See more pictures here.

4. Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg, Germany
Best approach to a church ever.  You're wandering around the quaint, narrow streets of Strasbourg, stopping for a cookie here or a photo there, and you just turn a corner to what you think will be another beautiful little half-timbered street - bam.  Immense, incredibly detailed cathedral in your face. It has it all - new carvings to discover every time, mostly Gothic but enough Romanesque parts to keep it even more historically interesting, an astronomical clock, mosaics, even a sorta gross baroque side chapel if you're into that sort of thing.  See more pictures here and here.

3. Freiburg Minster, Freiburg, Germany
I think places 2 through 4 are really a 3-way tie. I feel funny putting this above Strasbourg, but I'd feel funny putting Strasbourg above it. The two actually share a lot in common - part-Romanesque, but mostly Gothic, tons of fascinating detail, in the same region.  The Minster is much smaller, though - both grand and cozy.  The thing that I love the most, though, is the entrance.  The entrance is all painted Gothic and adorned with what must be a hundred tiny painted statues.  I think we spent half an hour just admiring it before even going in the church.  See more photos here.

2. Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France
Painted Gothic. Wallpaper-like patterns on the columns and ceilings.  Thirteenth-century stained glass windows which seem to make up the entire wall.  A cozy basement chapel underneath.  Wow wow wow. See more photos here.

1. .....Want to guess?
It suits the theme.
First to guess it right gets a prize. One guess per person...and you have to tell me your favorite church(es) while you're at it! I'll check it on Wednesday.  Here's a photo to help you out, and a clue: it's not in my husband's top ten at all.

ETA: Guessing is's Matthias Church in Budapest!  More here.


  1. This is a great topic! I don't have a guess for #1 but I know I haven't been there. St. Stephen's (Mainz), St. Jakob's (Rothenburg o.d.T.), and Große St. Martin's (Köln) would make my list.

    St. Stephens for the Chagall stained glass but also those great blue windows that fill the church with blue light during the day. St. Jakob's for the beautiful woodcarving(s), and St. Martin's is great if only as a foil for the come from this magnificent, giant cathedral and into a very humble, sparsely decorated church just down the road.

  2. I agree. Your post really got me thinking - I'm not sure I could compile a list of my top ten. I would have to have multiple categories.
    I don't recognize your #1 and I will be very embarrassed if I've been there and don't recognize it.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Keine Ahnung on #1, but your's all all lovely. I only have one: Wayfarer's Chapel in Palos Verdes, California:

  5. National Cathedral in Washington DC. Not least for the warren of chapels done in a dozen different styles underneath the sanctuary itself. The stained glass is stunning, and the acoustics are amazing - which is a key point for those of us who judge a cathedral as much by its choir as by the decor.

  6. The Seville Cathedral is pretty spectacular, both inside and out. Also the Mezquita in Cordoba is stunning - it was built as a mosque, then converted to a church after the Reconquista. I guess I'm a sucker for Spanish churches.

    I also was pretty wowed by Aachen Cathedral. It's not as huge and imposing as other cathedrals, but the mosaics are wonderful. Oooh, and if mosaics are your thing, the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, is the joint.

    I have no clue where your destination church is, but it looks fantastic.

  7. Fantastic topic!!! I will write about mine too whenever I get my blog back working again. sigh.

    One of the cutest churches I visited was the Weisskirche in Bavaria. It is in the middle of nowhere but was quite pretty. It is Rococo style which I was having trouble visualizing until I saw it in person. ;)

    Anyways, your church looks familiar. Is it in Freiburg? I feel like I have seen it but a lot of the churches start to run together in my mind. :)

  8. @HeidelbergMT - St. Stephen's definitely comes in just below the runner-up list for me - love those windows. My favorite Cologne Dom foil is St. Ursula's, which was another that came in just under the runner-up list. Love the cartoonish crown tower, bone room, and gold enameled stuff inside. I have been to St. Jakob's but sadly it was so fast I remember very little.

    @German Gems - I'd love to see your multicategory list if you ever make one. :)

    @Comment deleter (I saw your comment in my email) - You have good taste, then. ;) I haven't been to Oxford but would love to go.

    @Julie - Ooh, I like the looks of that place! I'm a fan of FLW, but didn't know his son was also an architect.

    @Dru - That sounds amazing; I need to get to DC!

    @Sarah - We always say we'll get to Spain, and we never do. I really want to check out the different styles you can see there!

    @Danielle - I haven't heard of that one so I will have to check it out! Re: Rococo, what did you think of the Asamkirche in Munich (if you have seen it)?

  9. I say there is no contest:
    La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

  10. For me, León Cathedral (Spain):


I love commenters!